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The Belmont's place

In many ways, the Belmont Stakes is an aging dinosaur, but with that said, you should always respect your elders. This year, courtesy of the antics of California Chrome, interest in the 1½-mile race is high. Both traditional stories and social media updates abound on the chestnut colt, who is facing a date with destiny June 7.

Everyone wants to know how the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner is training; everyone has an opinion on if he can become the 12th Triple Crown winner; and everyone knows that an opossum tried to outrun him during one of his morning workouts.

But what if he had lost the Preakness? Die-hard racing fans would still care about the Belmont, sure. However, not many others would. That sounds like a harsh thing to say, but in reality, it is just the truth. Americans barely care about racing, and American racing barely cares about distance races on the dirt.

This year, Belmont Park has loaded Belmont Stakes day with many of its other signature races, so handle would be high even without California Chrome's run.

This means the Belmont's relevancy is highly dependent on if the Triple Crown is on the line because the Triple Crown is still a headline maker.

This year, Belmont Park has loaded Belmont Stakes day with many of its other signature races, so handle would be high even without California Chrome's run. The racing calendar was set before anyone knew if the Triple Crown would still be a possibility, but historically, massive crowds only attend the Belmont if there is a chance to witness history.

The largest crowd ever for the race gathered a decade ago, when 120,139 people showed up to see if Smarty Jones would win the Triple Crown. He didn't, finishing second by a length behind Grade 1 winner Birdstone. On-track handle that day was more than $14.4 million.

Last year, with no Triple Crown on the line, only 47,562 people showed up to see Palace Malice claim the final jewel of the series. On-track handle was a fairly healthy $10.7 million, but think beyond just betting slips. Think of the tickets, souvenirs, hotels and food that an additional 75,000 people require.

It is rather simple: A Triple Crown means more exposure and more money.

The problem plaguing the Belmont is that very few people in America breed horses hoping to get one that wants to go 1½ miles on the dirt. They hope they might be able to go the distance, but that is about it. Odds are every horse running in the Belmont will never be asked to run that extra quarter-mile again. That means if a Triple Crown is not on the line, the winner of the race may or may not be worth remembering.

Interest in long-distance dirt runners is so low, in fact, a race dedicated to that very niche couldn't hack it as part of the Breeders' Cup World Championships. Established in 1984, the now two-day racing extravaganza serves as the end-of-season championship event for the sport. Not surprisingly, taking part in one of the races is usually the goal of top runners.

The Breeders' Cup Marathon was established in 2008 and was originally the same distance as the Belmont. The thought that 1½ miles was a "marathon" was comical to most of the rest of the world, though, and the following year the race was extended by two furlongs to 1¾ miles.

The race never attracted good enough fields to be considered a Grade 1 contest, and just this April, Breeders' Cup announced it would no longer be part of the event. The race, worth $500,000, proved to be of too little interest.

"It is our mission to conduct a racing program with competition at its highest level," said Craig Fravel, Breeders' Cup president and CEO. "While we truly appreciate the participation of owners and trainers in the Marathon, the conditions of the race have not developed into a competition that we believe reaches the standard set by the remaining races comprising the Championships."

As the years have gone by, American racing has gotten very focused on speed over stamina, which puts the Belmont in a unique place. Looking at the past 10 winners, it is a complete mixed bag of truly talented runners and total long shots who found their moment in the sun that day because after all, someone had to win the race. Da' Tara, anyone?

Happily for everyone, last year's winner, Palace Malice, has come back as a 4-year-old and has been impressive. He is undefeated in three starts this year, all of which have come in graded stakes company, and he is the only one of the three horses who took a Triple Crown race last year who is still in training. The other two, Orb and Oxbow, were retired to begin their stud careers.

With each race he runs, Palace Malice is making the point that he just might end up as the best horse in his crop after all, even if no one thought that last year. When it came time to vote for champion 3-year-old male, the Belmont Stakes winner garnered one vote. That's right, a single vote.

It was a fair assessment, as he only won one other race in 2013. The award instead went to Will Take Charge, who wasn't exactly a winning machine either, taking five of 11 starts as a 3-year-old. It was an odd year where no one really stood out, but Will Take Charge's second-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic and victory in the Clark Handicap was enough for him to win the Eclipse Award in a landslide.

As Palace Malice shows, even though it is a Classic, winning the Belmont Stakes in no way garners you instant respect. Unless, of course, you are also winning the Triple Crown at the same time.


Will Take Charge is also still racing this year but has only won once in four starts. His last outing was a sixth-place finish in the Grade 2 Alysheba Stakes on the Kentucky Oaks undercard.

As Palace Malice shows, even though it is a Classic, winning the Belmont Stakes in no way garners you instant respect. Unless, of course, you are also winning the Triple Crown at the same time.

This also proved true with 2010 Belmont winner Drosselmeyer, who came back to win the 2011 Breeders' Cup Classic at odds of 14-1. The horse retired with earnings of $3.7 million but was never a highly touted runner, even though he won two of racing's biggest prizes. Granted, those are the only two Grade 1 victories on his résumé, but they aren't shabby ones to have.

Social Inclusion, who ran third in this year's Preakness, has never won a stakes race of any kind but is probably more highly regarded than Drosselmeyer was at any point in his career. Why? Because he is wickedly fast, and speed sells in America.

That means the Belmont, which will be held for the 146th time, is a relic in many ways. I for one hope the distance never gets changed, but you hear calls for that very thing fairly regularly. For now, though, it still is deserving of its nickname: "the test of the champion."

A test is what California Chrome will be given, and here's hoping he passes with flying colors.